Clean seats. Orderly ticket queues. Enough food and drink. Loos that work. Reasonable human officials. Reasonable human rules. The little things that make watching a sports event a happy experience—and that’s before we ask for the cameras and musical instruments that elevate it to a truly joyous occasion. Too often, while building the grand stadiums and signing the billion-dollar deals, those who organize these events forget the little things—making the Indian sporting experience memorable for the negatives. No wonder the players are under pressure—they will be the only bright spots for the spectator in 10-odd hours of pretty hard going.
Case in point is, of course, the England vs India match in Bangalore. Forget the ticketing system—the fact that around 80% of the tickets were out of bounds for the general public. Focus on the way the rest were sold, on the scenes outside Chinnaswamy Stadium a couple of days before the game as hundreds who had gathered pre-dawn were first led a merry dance from counter to counter, and then dispersed by the long handle of the law.
Telling: Bangalore’s Chinnaswamy Stadium after the 24 February lathicharge on ticket buyers.
The latter sparked outrage—especially in the foreign media—and prompted an unscheduled press conference the next day by Bangalore’s police commissioner Shankar Bidari. He put a pretty unique spin on it. “The Indian situation and Indian dimensions are different,” he said. “It is difficult for the people who have lived in America and Europe to understand... To prevent a greater injury you have to cause a small injury.”
You know what memory that evokes, right? Rewind six months to another official, another city and another sporting event. Lalit Bhanot is currently staring at the walls inside Tihar Jail; it’s probably not the best time to remind him of his discourse on how India’s standards of hygiene differed from those of other countries: “According to me and you, this room is clean. They want certain standard of hygiene, they want certain standard of cleanliness which may differ in standard from my standard or their standard or his standard.”
Hopefully Bhanot’s generation of sports administrators is on its way out. The new generation comprises people motivated more by sport itself, and what it can do for the community at large, than by narrower, more personal objectives; from Clean Sports India (Pargat Singh and Reeth Abraham) to Olympic Gold Quest (Geet Sethi and Prakash Padukone) and the Karnataka State Cricket Association, or KSCA (Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath and Venkatesh Prasad). The England-India game was the KSCA’s acid test; the pathetic handling of ticket sales was a high-profile PR disaster but it got the smaller things right. Cleanliness, for example—the gents’ loo in my stand was spotless through the match, and I have it on good authority that the women’s loo was clean too for the most part. Security was tight but largely polite and there was plenty of drinking water (though the coffee stopped too soon and those who came in at 11am could have done with some breakfast).
How hard is it to get these things right? Someone closely involved with organizing that match told me how he spent two days at the stadium explaining to the cleaning staff exactly how to clean the plastic chairs. “The problem is not that they don’t want to do it; the problem is that they just don’t understand what cleanliness is,” he said with a shrug of frustration. “They think that if the chair is not broken, it’s clean. That’s the mindset we have to change.”
It’s clearly not a problem of manpower, just one of orientation. We can imitate the example of South Africa, which has a similar workforce—it’s the only other country where I’ve seen workers stand on the highway waving red flags to indicate it’s being repaired; in most places they wouldn’t bother, or need to bother. Yet the stadiums at last year’s Fifa football World Cup were spotless—and not just the stadiums where the matches were being held. At Port Elizabeth, the fan fest was being staged at the historic St George’s cricket ground; I spent a freezing winter’s day there watching Argentina hammer South Korea on the huge screen while a troop of cleaning women kept scrubbing the unoccupied seats.
Spiffy:St George’s in South Africa wasn’t a match venue last year, but it still got cleaned.
It’s always the little things. Bangladesh can’t match us for infrastructure (though the Mirpur stadium is rated as one of the world’s best cricket venues) but they managed the small matter of selling their tickets—online and otherwise—well before the tournament began, prompting ticketing officials to praise their professionalism. China kept its inscrutable public face by deploying an army of volunteers to ensure the garbage was segregated and to pick up every stray can and bento box—going as far as limiting coffee in the media centre to between 2 and 4 in the afternoon to avoid half-filled cups being strewn around (maybe the KSCA was on to something?).
We, too, can do it. I believe our greatest strength is not the stadiums or the award-winning airlines or the luxury hotels. Yes, those make a clear statement that we are an emerging power; more important, though, are the Everyday People, the ones who make the wheels turn. Friends and colleagues who covered the Commonwealth Games or are here for the World Cup speak of the warmth of volunteers, auto drivers, airline staff and hundreds of others who lend a helping hand when things go wrong. They are the Big People who do the Little Things that matter.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Espncricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at firstname.lastname@example.org